The Long View 2005-11-18: Luminous Surrealism; National Insurance Schemes

I've never gotten into any of Ballard's writings, but I probably ought to give him a try someday.

This is the "Cadillac of the Skies" scene from Spielberg's film adaptation of Empire of the Sun. It is an amazing scene, classic Spielberg, and sufficiently iconic that you usually find it on the cover of the movie.

John mentions Michael Fumento in passing here. I used to follow Fumento, he was an interesting contrarian in the early 2000s. But it turned out that he didn't so much write what he thinks [consequences be damned], like Greg Cochran, but rather he wrote what he was paid to write. Eventually, his gig and his marriage fell apart. I feel kind of bad for the guy, but you could probably see this as a kind of rough justice. However, he wasn't always wrong. It really isn't likely that you can get an Ebola epidemic in the US or another country with decent medicine.

Luminous Surrealism; National Insurance Schemes


J. G. Ballard is best known for his memoir, Empire of the Sun, but he is usually classed as a science-fiction writer with a surrealist twist:

Though still essentially grounded in science fiction (his future technologies and ecological disasters are unsurpassed in the genre), reading one of his books is like falling into the interior world of a Surrealist painting.

When a story about the food supply conjures memories of J. G. Ballard stories, maybe you've got a problem:

Australians have been told there is no need to panic after a recent "glow-in-the-dark pork chop" scare. ...The New South Wales Food Authority said the glow was caused by the harmless pseudomonas fluorescens bacteria.

Food authority head George Davey said he understood people would be "shocked" to see their meat glowing in the fridge but said the bacteria were safe...[however]...The bacteria are naturally present in meat and fish but they multiply quickly if food is not stored at the correct temperature.

So the glowing can be a sign that the food is starting to go off and Mr Davey recommends consumers throw any luminous pork chops - or other cuts of meat - straight into the dustbin.

In a typical Ballard story, some minor anomaly will intrude into everyday life: a prolonged drought, say, or a new kind of crystal will be noticed spreading in wilderness areas like creeper vine. At first the anomaly will be a minor annoyance in the everyday world; then it will be a major public issue; then it will overwhelm ordinary life, both physically and metaphysically.

But nothing like that is happening now. That is just ordinary bacteria. Ordinary, glow-in-the-dark bacteria.

* * *

Speaking of surrealism, this may be the first perfectly tautological pitch in the history of fundraising:

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, speaking to the group’s national leadership here last week, signaled a sharp shift in ADL policy by directly attacking several prominent religious right groups and challenging their motives, which he said include nothing less than “Christianizing America.” But even more threatening, Foxman said, is how the views of many of the most strident Evangelical leaders have started to pervade American society, which he said will be revealed in a forthcoming ADL poll...Although only portions of the survey were available this week, Foxman said some of the results are alarming...According to the survey, 70 percent of weekly churchgoers and 76 percent of self-described Evangelicals agreed that “Christianity is under attack”...

Probably those numbers are even higher among churchgoers who have read the ADL's direct mail solicitations.

* * *

Who is this Marshall Law anyway? I went to a perfectly good law school and, frankly, the subject of "martial law" never came up. In any case, those of my readers who plan to stage military coups might be interested in this brief explanation of the by Rohn K. Robbins:

Exactly what is martial law and why might the spread of a killer strain of flu - H2N1 or some other - one day invoke it?... Martial law is, strictly speaking, the suspension of civil law and, in its place, the imposition of military authority. While not explicitly provided for in the Constitution, suspension of habeas corpus is mentioned in Article 1, Section 9, and the activation of the militia in time of rebellion or invasion is mentioned in Article 1, Section 8.

Speaking of avian flu, Michael Fumento has a critique in The Weekly Standard of the interminable hype we have been hearing on the subject:

High on the list of scaremongers is Laurie Garrett, former Newsday reporter and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Garrett is to pandemics what Paul Ehrlich is to population growth, having amassed fame and fortune by being consistently and spectacularly wrong. Just as he became famous predicting a Population Bomb that fizzled, she came to prominence through a 1995 book, The Coming Plague. No, it hasn't come yet, but--trust her--it will. Garrett's rise began with her prediction of an Ebola virus pandemic. This was notwithstanding the fact that Ebola is just about last on any realistic list of possible pandemic pathogens, since it's terribly difficult to transmit. But guess who won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Ebola coverage? Lessons like this aren't lost on other journalists.

Sometimes, as we saw with the Katrina disaster in New Orleans, long-anticipated catastrophes do finally arrive. On the other hand, disasters that once seemed certain are often postponed indefinitely. And some developments are complete surprises, like the one that began with the odd glow from the meat section of your refrigerator.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the healthcare front, Bruce the Psychic Guy has favored us with the outline of a universal medical-insurance system for the United States. (Thanks, Jay!) A complete system would need more moving parts, but the Psychic Guy's proposal is correct in emphasizing the need to increase the supply of doctors and nurses.

The most common criticism of national health schemes is the libertarian argument that government cannot be expected to do anything more efficiently than the private sector, and that the bigger the government program, the more inefficient it will be. There is a historical analogy that suggests otherwise, however.

Deposit insurance for bank accounts had been tried on the state level several times before the New Deal finally created a national deposit-insurance system. The early experiments had not worked. The insurers, either private entities or state agencies, just were not big enough or credible enough. Neither were their client banks diversified enough; all the banks in an agricultural state, for instance, would be stressed in a year with bad weather.

The problem with deposit insurance is "moral hazard." Depositors will have no incentive to seek out banks that have prudent lending policies if the depositors know that their deposits will be protected even if the bank fails because its creditors default. The only way around moral hazard is a fairly intrusive system of supervision by the deposit insurer. The supervision is not rocket-science, but the states usually lacked the personnel or the political will to do it effectively.

The banking system was flat on its back when FDR became president in 1933. The Roosevelt Administration was actually not very keen on deposit insurance. The key feature of the finance-industry reform that the Administration presented to Congress was a centralization of the Federal Reserve System: deposit insurance was an afterthought.

To everybody's surprise, deposit insurance was what made people trust banks again. It continued to work without a glitch thereafter, except for the S&L episode in the 1980s, when political influence turned off part of the supervision system for a few years.

I suspect we might see a similar pattern with health insurance. Some states, such as Tennessee, have tried to run their own health-insurance schemes, with mixed success. Everywhere, the system is a patchwork of state regulators and private insurers that has none of the merits of a free-market system and all of the defects of a social-welfare bureaucracy. With a national system, economies of scale will solve more than half the problem.

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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